Small Families Are Best

As the third of eleven children, I know what it’s like to be part of a big family. And as with most things, it’s not all good nor all bad. I can’t imagine giving up any one of my siblings. I care about them, and I am glad they were brought into existence. In fact, the sibling I am closest to is actually the last of the bunch, number eleven. Without him, I’m not sure I would have survived 2018, the absolute worst year of my life. In large part due to him, 2020 has been comparatively wonderful. There is no way I would want to go back in time and tell my parents that they really should have stopped after me, number three. No way!

Having said that, when I imagine what my life might have been like if there were only two or three of us, I feel like a lot of my life’s biggest struggles could have been either avoided or mitigated to some degree.

Every child has their own unique challenges and needs. They don’t all need the same rules or amount of personal attention. They don’t need hugs to the same degree of frequency. They don’t all need to be told that they are loved every day to feel that they are loved. Some can be left alone for long periods of time without harm. Others need constant social interaction from their parents.

When I raised my own two children, I recognized that treating them both in exactly the same way would be a mistake. So, I treated them differently. I learned how they each feel love, and I did what I could to make sure they both felt loved by me. I taught them to read, differently. I taught them arithmetic, differently. My son, though he does value fairness, was able to understand when I explained why the penalties for breaking rules could not be the same for both of them. Even the rules could not be exactly the same. They were two different people with different needs. Maybe schools and governments have to treat everyone the same, but a family shouldn’t have to. What was important to me was that each child felt loved in the way they needed and that their opportunities for individual growth and life success were maximized.

The more children there are though, the more difficult this approach becomes. I think that, out of necessity, most parents of large families use the much simpler strategy of treating every child the same. They try to show the children that they are being fair and that they love each child the same. At least, this is the approach my own parents seemed to employ. One positive benefit of this approach is that I never got the feeling that they were playing favorites. 

Unfortunately, what all of this fairness also meant was that my own unique individual needs weren’t quite being met. For example, I was not a happy child, but my parents never took any real action to discover why I was struggling. On those occasions where I felt a need to talk to them about some concern, I often had to wait in line. I can remember multiple occasions where I simply gave up and went off to be by myself elsewhere. 

Sure. My parents loved me…, but unless I did something drastic, I could never get the attention I needed. Among the things I tried when I was young were screaming at the top of my lungs, walking out and being gone for hours at a time, breaking walls, doors, and mirrors, getting F’s in classes, stealing, and even getting physically violent with siblings. I was awful, and I needed help. But did I get the help I needed? I got punishments. I got put in time out. I got extra chores. I lost privileges and access to things I enjoyed. They tried to control my behavior by meting out punishments. I don’t remember any time being spent to find out what was really wrong.

Of course, I didn’t know what was wrong either, but I was the kid. I was too young and inexperienced in life to understand my own psyche. I remember the phrase being often used in my house, “they just want attention,” whenever a child acted out. As if wanting or needing attention was a bad thing! In my mind, I was just an awful person, and all of the punishments and parental admonitions just supported that belief.

In middle school, things got especially bad. I heard about the possibility of homeschooling, and begged my mom to let me try. I needed something to change. My mom actually arranged a meeting with my principal to discuss the option, but he told my mom that I would just be running away from my problems. According to him, I needed to face them in order to overcome them. The logic doesn’t sound bad, and I don’t blame my mom for listening to him, but the choice was still wrong for me. Going home at that time wouldn’t have been running away from my problems. It would have been giving my mom a chance to figure out what the problems were, away from so many other distractions. 

A year or two later, my mom let my younger sister stay home to be home-schooled while I attended my first year of high school. High school was a lot better than middle school though, and I started to have some hope for the future. The next year though, in my sophomore year of high school, my mom decided to home-school everyone at home. For the family as a whole, this might have been a good decision, but I’m not sure it’s what was best for me personally. As just one in a crowd, my parents never really understood my own personal individual needs. 

The point of this post is not to criticize my parents though. I believe they did the best they could given the circumstances. If there had only been one or two of us, I’m sure they would have spent more time with me. They would have come to understand me more, and they would have been able to meet my needs better. If they weren’t able to understand what was going on with me or didn’t know how to help me, they would have had more money to spend on a child therapist or psychologist. Perhaps, I would not have had so many suicidal thoughts, a fact my parents never knew about me until I wrote it out in a blog post just a few years ago.

More recently, I have had some unpleasant interactions with my mom that I feel are caused, at least in part, by the sheer number of children she has. I believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has caused great harm to me and millions of others, and I have written much about this. Until recently, my mom refused to admit that this could be even a little bit true. She finally did acknowledge that the “attitudes of members and the policies of the church have caused [me] pain,” and that “perhaps if [she] had [gone through what I did, her] perspective would be different.”

This partial acknowledgement made me both happy and sad. I was happy that she was starting to see, just a little bit, what I’d been going through all of these years and how the church was a part of that. I was sad that it made no difference to her. Now, this may have nothing to do with the number of children she has, but I can see how it might. If I came to believe that one of my children had been hurt by the members and policies of an organization that I loved, and that that organization was continuing to hurt others without apology, I would want to rethink my relationship with that organization. Even if I couldn’t give it up, I would want to keep my relationship with it a lot more low-key.

However, if I had many similarly devoted children and grandchildren that looked up to me and would see if I wavered in my dedication to this organization, I might hesitate changing any of my behaviors. I think that my mother believes that the church helps and blesses the lives of her and almost all the rest of her family, and I am just one sad exception. In her mind, changing her attitude toward the church might help her relationship with me but hurt many others. She can’t afford that, regardless of how it might affect me. 

To me, it seems pretty clear that numbers matter. What a parent will do for one child alone, they might not be willing to do for that same one child out of a great number. Imagine if all eleven of my mother’s children felt hurt by the church. Would all of her family-directed emails then be full of worshipful statements about the church? Would she then continue to exclaim her great joy that the church is true? Would it permeate all of her communication both public and private? No matter how much she believed the church to be true, even to the point of certainty, I think she would more carefully evaluate whether she needed to affirm that confidence at every step, destroying family relationships in the process.

And so, back to my original point, I think small families are best. When schools, governments, etc. have to treat all the same, regardless of personality differences, psychology, etc., parents should be able to do what’s right for the good of each individual. Parents, especially, should not have to choose between the good of many and the good of one child with unmet needs.

Joy Born of Suffering

I’ve never been diagnosed for depression. I just know that it had been a rather regular part of my life until several years ago. I had suicidal thoughts throughout my teen years, but I never acted on them. I was too afraid that suicide wouldn’t actually end anything. I might just have to go through some kind of purgatory or go to the spirit prison of Mormonism. During the darkest times of my life, I just pled with God to just end my existence entirely. I didn’t want to experience any kind of afterlife.

But these times were transitory. A week or two or even a month of depression was followed by a season of relative cheerfulness. I wouldn’t say I was ecstatic or anything, but in comparison to the depression, I felt really good for days or weeks at a time. And then I’d crash again.

Nobody seemed to ever notice when I was feeling down though. If anybody asked how I was doing, I always said I was fine. I smiled at everyone no matter how bad I felt inside. If I couldn’t keep up the act, I’d isolate myself as much as possible. Back in junior high school, I faked sickness once or twice a week during the lows. I don’t know how my parents could let me get away with that, but I’m glad they did.

As I got older, I learned other strategies to combat or at least hide the depression from others. I slept long hours, disappeared out of the house on long walks by myself, and tried to push through to better days. I used to think the depression was caused by my own mistakes or “sinful” nature. Sometimes, I think I tried to invent reasons to explain my unhappiness. My church taught that happiness came from doing the “right” things, so if I was unhappy, I must have been doing “wrong” things.

Only as an adult did I finally realize that brain chemistry could also be a contributing factor, and a major one. The realization that my depression wasn’t always the result of doing wrong actions was more helpful than anything I’d learned before. Learning that diet, exercise, and the company of certain individuals could shorten the duration of my dark days and weeks was life changing. I wish I could have known that when I was younger. I wish I hadn’t felt it necessary to blame myself for my unhappiness.

And then, back in 2013, I lost my faith in my religion. And I broke. My ups and downs ended. I stopped feeling depressed, and I wrote blogs about feeling better than ever. But that wasn’t completely true. I stopped feeling depressed, but I stopped experiencing those times of happiness as well. I stopped feeling anything at all. I remember thinking that I could handle anything then. The world could end. I could lose my family and friends. I could become homeless. I thought I had grown in some way and was capable of any trial. But I was wrong.

I’m not sure how long it took me to realize that there was a problem. I remember feeling uneasy in 2015, like my life was just wrong somehow. With my wife and kids, I tried to start over somewhere else. I made drastic changes in my life.. But that feeling of something being off wouldn’t go away. I knew something was missing, but I couldn’t figure it out. I remember acting out, trying to feel something, but failing.

In 2017, my wife suggested I go back to America. I know that, like me, my wife had no idea what was wrong with me. She was slipping into her own depression, and just being around me made it worse. I said things to try and explain what I was going through, but as I didn’t really understand it myself, anything I said could only be partly true. When she mentioned leaving though, I felt resistant, but then as I thought about it more, I thought this could be the shake up that I needed.

I returned to the United States with my son in the summer of 2017. I lived with my parents, found a part-time job in the area, and tried to live my life. Unfortunately, nothing changed. Through talking with others though, especially a number of siblings, I realized that something really traumatic had happened to me. Losing my faith and religion was a bigger blow to my emotional well-being than I’d realized. I’d completely shut down that part of me that feels and became numb. Things started to make sense, but I didn’t know what to do about it.

In the spring of 2018, my wife came to visit me and our son. The visit was nice, but when she left, she took our son with her. Earlier in the year, my parents had left on a mission abroad, and so, with the departure of my son, I was left virtually alone. Being alone though gave me options that I hadn’t had before.

I decided to take a trip to California with the thought in my mind that I might stay. I chose Fresno as the biggest city with jobs that was still affordable. I stayed in a stranger’s home and walked around the local neighborhoods, trying to get a feel for the area. Could this place become my home? On my drive there, I’d felt optimistic. When I saw some of the local trees and plant life, I felt nostalgic. I told myself that I was home, and I felt hopeful for the first time in a long time.

During those first few days, I searched for jobs, considered various housing options, and contemplated life.

And then.. In the wake of the hope and optimism I’d felt came all the darkness I’d been numb to for the past 5 years.

I escaped out to my car so that the owner of the house wouldn’t hear the sobs I could no longer hold back. I drove around the city and tried to find a private place to just let it all out. I couldn’t find any good place though. Gradually, I got myself under control and returned to the house. For the next few days, I closed myself in my room and played computer games. I tried to shut out the feelings that were threatening to overwhelm me.

No.. not Fresno, I decided. Nothing wrong with Fresno, but I was finally feeling depressed, and I wanted to enjoy it. I would go back to my parents’ home and curl up in a dark corner by myself. Jobs and responsibilities could wait. I wasn’t going to think about any of that now.

On the 12 hour drive back to Utah, I was a mess. My feelings were all over the place, and I had no control over them at all. I raged and screamed, bawled and whimpered. Through the salt flats, I surpassed 100 miles per hour. I watched the oncoming traffic and considered how easy it would be to end it all. Easy? Yes. Something I could do? No. There were other lives in those cars, and no matter how much I wanted to be done with my life, I couldn’t risk someone else’s.

And then I thought about my kids. They’d be okay without me. But I believed they’d be sad. I didn’t want them to be sad. I didn’t want them to misunderstand. I loved them. Would they think I didn’t love them if I decided my personal pain was just too much? And so I decided to keep on living. I didn’t have a fear of an afterlife anymore to hold me back, but I had people that I loved and that loved me. That would be enough for the time being.

Back in Utah, the house was crawling with family members. I can’t remember the occasion now. I know there was a wedding around that time. There was also a funeral not long after. The family also gathered in that house for other reasons as well. All I know is that I had no desire to see or talk to anybody. I couldn’t hide the fact that something was wrong, and I didn’t want to try. Anyway, to make a long story short, the depression passed. The cycle returned with its lows… and highs. In fact, knowing what was coming made that first depression shorter than average.

Coming out of that episode was marvelous. I felt like I could finally breathe again after being nearly smothered to death. Breathing never felt so good. The world got some of its color back. I hadn’t realized how drab all the colors had become. I had some serious issues, and lots of them, but hope and optimism were back too.

My brother and his wife invited me to go to Washington to live with them for a while until I could get on my feet again. In a high moment, I accepted their offer. I went in August, and things were mostly good. The lows come and go as they did before my crisis of faith, and I feel myself again.

Back in December, I moved into my own apartment. I started blogging again in mid-January when I was feeling good. The last week and a half have been particularly bad, and thus, no blog posts. I’m not sure if writing cheers me up or if I write because I’m feeling more cheerful. Most likely, it’s a combination of the two. Regardless, as of an hour or so before starting this blog, I started to get out of my funk and to move around. I cleaned my apartment, studied a textbook I’d borrowed, and thought of goals I’d like to make.

I never want to go back to that numb state I was in before Fresno. Though things were dark for me there, I remember that city with fondness. Through the pain, I can feel joy. It’s okay that I don’t feel happy all the time. Even when I’m feeling depressed, I am glad that I can at least feel something. This is life. And for now at least, things are looking up.

When in Pain, the Animals Came

(This is a later point in the same letter started in Early Experience With Faith)

I don’t know the events surrounding this experience or what led up to it. I know I had suicidal thoughts and I was practically begging for some sign that God was there. I wanted to know that there was a point to my existence, but on this day, I felt pretty convinced that my life had no meaning whatsoever. Our family was visiting with relatives for a day or two and I took a moment when the family wasn’t doing anything to get off by myself behind their home. Again, I found myself praying and pleading for some relief. I was at the end of my ability to tolerate my own life and I needed some intervention. I don’t know what I prayed for exactly, but the events that occurred afterwards lifted me out of my depression for a while.

I have always loved animals and our cats were my best friends growing up. Whenever I was at my lowest, I would inevitably find a cat in my lap or rubbing its head on my leg. Somehow, they always knew. On this day, our cats were from us, but there were several other animals that decided to be friendly. I always hesitate to share this story as it seems so unreal, .. but it happened. Over the course of at least 2 or more hours, I enjoyed the attention of several animals, the most memorable of which was a bird that perched on my finger as it fed its young. I don’t remember the other animals so well as this happened when I was just a teenager, over 20 years ago, but I seem to remember horses and possibly a cow. I’m pretty sure there were other animals as well, but I can’t remember anymore. I just remember that each experience seemed to be remarkable at the time and all of this lifted me out of my depression and tempted me to believe that God was real and actually cared.